By Sharon Lewin and David Cooper
Mark Wainberg, PhD, Professor in the departments of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology and in Pediatrics at McGill University, died tragically of an asthma attack that he suffered while swimming with his family on April 11, 2017 in Bal Harbour, Florida.
Mark was the founder and Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre, at the Lady Davis Institute in Montreal. Together with his colleagues, he was the first to identify 3TC (lamivudine) as a new antiretroviral, and later recognized that drug-induced viral mutations led to treatment failure, providing a rationale for the development of combination therapy. He made several major contributions to our understanding of the mechanisms of drug resistance. More recently, with improvements in antiretroviral therapy and with drug resistance less frequent, he pioneered our understanding of resistance to dolutegravir. He had a theory that this could be exploited to achieve a functional cure and was on a mission to convince us all of this!
In addition to being an outstanding virologist, Mark's great legacy is as an activist, a rare combination with basic science. In 1998 he was elected president of the International AIDS Society (IAS) and organized the XIII International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. Together with Professors David Cooper and Stefano Vella, he had the vision to understand the importance of holding this very important meeting at the heart of the epidemic. Mark was also co-chair of the XVI International AIDS Conference held in Toronto. He was famous for his bold admonition of the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper who did not attend the conference. He bravely said at the opening ceremony, "Mr. Harper, you have made a mistake that puts you on the wrong side of history."
Mark was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and an Officer of the National Order of Quebec, both being the highest civilian honours. He was recognized for his accomplishments by the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame, and was honoured by being awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur, the highest honour given by France. He was a tireless supporter of the French HIV community both in Canada, France and Francophone Africa through his bilingual abilities and as a longstanding impartial Quebecois.
His obituary in the New York Times relayed a remarkable story in relation to Mark being a Modern Orthodox Jew whose HIV research led him to support the LGBTQ community, and to march in parades to support its causes. Last year he donated a Torah to an Ethiopian synagogue in Jerusalem in memory of a 16-year-old girl stabbed to death during a Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride Parade.
Mark visited Australia on multiple occasions and had many friends and colleagues in the Australian HIV research community. The last time he visited was to attend the AIDS2014 Conference in Melbourne as a previous president of IAS. he was a huge supporter of the meeting and particularly to one of the co-authors (SL) as local co-chair. He understood Australians and Australian Science well, perhaps because of our very similar attitudes and systems to Canada.
We will remember his passion for the truth and his humanism. He had a wicked grin and a booming voice – both features will stay with all who knew him. He will be warmly remembered by the Australian and global HIV research community, by the people living with HIV for whom he fought continuously and for his services to Canada. His sudden death was a shock to all but his multiple legacies and generous contributions to the broader research community and to the HIV response will forever endure.